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Thailand ex-Prime Minister faces impeachment despite supporters

Though she was popular among the poor in Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra faces the possibility of a 5-year ban from political activity.

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Thailand's government on Thursday urged supporters of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to stay out of Bangkok when the legislature begins an impeachment hearing against her which could test a fragile calm under military rule.

The case against Yingluck, Thailand's first woman prime minister who was ousted in May, days before her government was overthrown in a coup, begins on Friday and could see her banned from politics for five years.

Yingluck remains popular among the rural poor who elected her in a 2011 landslide, as does her brother, another ousted premier, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Her impeachment over a rice subsidy scheme which critics denounced as a wasteful handout to the Shinawatras' supporters is the latest chapter in a decade-long struggle for power between the Bangkok-based establishment and former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin.

"We urge Yingluck's supporters not to travel to Bangkok tomorrow. If you want to give her encouragement you can do so from home or over the telephone," Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters.

Police would prevent any violence outside parliament, where the impeachment hearing will take place, he said.

Yingluck was removed from office after a court found her guilty of abuse of power. Days later the military staged a coup, ending months of sometimes violent protests against her government.

A day after she was removed, the National Anti-Corruption Commission indicted her for dereliction of duty in relation to the rice scheme. The commission later found her guilty of mishandling the subsidy program, which was estimated to have run up losses of $15 billion.

The National Legislative Assembly which will rule on the impeachment was hand-picked by military leaders. It has said a decision could come by the end of the month.

If impeached, Yingluck faces a five-year ban from politics.

The junta has overseen a period of stability but has struggled to revive Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy, which grew just 0.2 percent in the first nine months of 2014.

Critics say the case against Yingluck is part of the military-royalist establishment's plan to end once and for all the influence of the Shinawatra family.

Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 coup, lives in self-exile to avoid a 2008 graft conviction. A political ban on his sister could raise the specter of a backlash by their supporters.

"It could ignite resistance to the military government," said Thanawut Wichaidit, a spokesman for the pro-Yingluck United Front For Democracy against Dictatorship group.

Protests are banned under martial law.

(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Martin Petty, Jeremy Laurence and Robert Birsel)

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